HERCULES -- The City Council on Tuesday sidestepped the delicate question of censuring one of its members for silencing a critic, shuffling the matter over to the Contra Costa County civil grand jury to deal with -- or not.
The council had punted once before on the tricky issue, which originated with a blog post on Hercules Patch in June that upset Councilwoman Myrna de Vera and her husband. De Vera told the Pinole city engineer about the post by Hercules resident Kent Von Aspern, who works for HDR Engineering, the firm that holds a design contract for improvements to the joint Pinole-Hercules wastewater treatment plant. The engineer, Dean Allison, reported back to de Vera that he had spoken to an HDR vice president and that "we should not be seeing any future postings."
When Von Aspern resumed blogging in July, de Vera alerted Allison, and the blogging soon stopped again.
After this newspaper reported on the issue, ¿the council considered censuring de Vera. But a draft resolution in November contained several serious technical and factual flaws, according to City Attorney Patrick Tang, prompting the council to postpone the censure matter to the new year.
Like they did in November, a group of de Vera's supporters showered her with praise from the public speakers' podium Tuesday, to applause. Others spoke of healing, urging the council to drop the censure matter and focus instead on the city's daunting financial and other problems. One resident likened the situation to a spat among children in a sandbox.
De Vera's four council mates -- Bill Kelly, Sherry McCoy, Dan Romero and Mayor John Delgado -- agreed they did not have enough information to entertain possible censure of de Vera. They also said they were unwilling to spend city funds on an investigation. Instead, several suggested the grand jury investigate de Vera's action, a process then-candidate Kelly already may have set in motion in late October when he contacted the grand jury as a private citizen; he was elected to the council in November.
When de Vera took her turn to speak, she asked: "What am I being censured for? What have I done to deserve this censure? What do we say to the grand jury?"
Romero said the grand jury might look into possible misuse of office by de Vera, among other lines of inquiry.
Kelly, an attorney and retired San Francisco police officer, noted that the grand jury operates in secrecy.
"We may or may not hear from them," Kelly said.
Lost amid Tuesday's brouhaha was any reference to Von Aspern, until Romero noted, without mentioning Von Aspern by name, that there is a victim in the episode.
In a letter to the city in late September, Von Aspern withdrew from consideration for a seat on a city advisory panel, saying he had been taken off the wastewater plant project and that he feared losing his job altogether over the blogging flap. The post that ticked off de Vera compared her unfavorably with a former councilwoman, Joanne Ward.
Romero urged the council, as a body, to ask the grand jury to investigate the matter, but several of his fellow members said that would be redundant in light of Kelly's October request to the grand jury to do so. Said Romero, "If we, as a body, can't protect our citizen, what good are we?"
Von Aspern has declined requests for comment from this newspaper. A senior official at HDR, Craig Olson, did not respond to requests for comment in the fall.